Published on
the Independent/UK

Conflict on Screen: Hollywood Goes to War

Andrew Gumbel

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Not so long ago, Hollywood was famously shy of telling stories ripped straight from the headlines. The movies, after all, are a form of escapism, first and foremost. Who wants to go to the multiplex to get more of the same depressing images being broadcast on the evening news?

Film-makers and studio chiefs preferred to take a more oblique route to commenting on the pressing events of the moment, especially when it came to questions of war and peace. They transferred the conflict to an earlier time, or to another culture, or simply kept quiet until the conflict itself was long over. Robert Altman's counter-cultural masterpiece M*A*S*H famously managed to send up the absurdities of the Vietnam war while purporting to be set 20 years earlier in Korea. More recently, Ridley Scott gave us an earful on the follies of imperialism in the Middle East by recreating the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven. 0727 06

Now, though, Hollywood seems to have lost its coyness. Perhaps it began with Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which turned anger at the Bush administration on the eve of the 2004 presidential election into an unlikely box-office hit. Perhaps the moment of truth came with last year's United 93, Paul Greengrass's harrowing recreation of the doomed fourth jetliner on 11 September 2001, whose passengers sacrificed themselves to avoid a greater atrocity in a major East Coast city.

The plain fact, though, is that we are about to be inundated with dramas set either in or around the Iraq war, and the tone of most, if not all, of them is hardly complimentary to George Bush's military adventure in the Middle East.

The first of them is also the one with the highest profile, since it has been written and directed by Paul Haggis, the Canadian film-maker who wrote Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning Million Dollar Baby, then walked away with the Best Picture Oscar for his directorial debut, Crash.

Haggis's film is called In the Valley of Elah (the Valley of Elah being the place where David slew Goliath), and it follows the story of Army Specialist Richard Davis whose mysterious death near his home base at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2003 was covered up until Davis's father took on the investigation and discovered he had been stabbed to death by members of his own platoon because he had witnessed atrocities they had committed in Iraq. The film, set for release in the United States in September, stars Tommy Lee Jones as the father and Susan Sarandon as the mother, and Charlize Theron as a (fictionalised) detective who helps the father's investigation.

About a month later, US cinemas will start showing Grace Is Gone, a melodrama first screened at the Sundance Film Festival (to a mixed reception) in which John Cusack stars as a bereaved husband who has to tell his two daughters that their mother has been killed in action in Iraq.

Around the same time, Reese Witherspoon will be starring in Rendition, as an American woman whose Egyptian-born husband is suspected of involvement with international terrorism. Just before Christmas, Brian De Palma will be out with Redacted, about an Army squad that torments an Iraqi family.

The list goes on. Next year will see the release of Stop Loss, directed by Kimberly Peirce (who made Boys Don't Cry), in which Ryan Philippe plays a soldier who defies an order to return to Iraq after his tour of duty is officially over. Greengrass, meanwhile, is adapting the non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City - which tells the story of what happened behind closed doors in Baghdad's super-protected Green Zone - to provide us with what will presumably be a verité-style account of all the mistakes and mis-steps made by the US occupying forces from 2003 to the present. His film is unlikely to come out before 2009.

Several things about these projects come as a surprise. First, that they are being made at all while US service men and women are still fighting the war they concern themselves with. Second, that they all overwhelmingly focus on aspects of American failure - military, political, diplomatic and also spiritual failure. (A seminal image in In The Valley of Elah, we are told, is a Stars and Stripes flag hung upside down somewhere in heartland America.) And third, that they are so close to the sorts of issues that continue to exercise the news and opinion pages of the world's newspapers.

This is not at all the standard pattern of war film-making over the past century or so. The very first war films ever made - and many, many more since - have essentially been adjuncts of the national propaganda machine, cheering on the troops and demonising the enemy. A 90-second short produced in 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War, depicted the (entirely fictitious) seizure of a Spanish government compound in Havana, the Cuban capital, the removal of the Spanish flag by US troops and its replacement by the American flag.


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In the intervening years, Hollywood has happily pumped out (and later been somewhat embarrassed by) such titles as The Sands of Iwo Jima, a 1949 John Wayne vehicle in which the account of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War was sanitised and heavily distorted, or The Green Berets, another John Wayne project from 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, in which the Americans were shown to be winning the war in Vietnam at precisely the moment it was becoming clear that they were in fact losing.

The best, most powerful, most questioning war films have invariably been made once the fighting had stopped. All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the seminal films about the First World War, was not made until 1930. Other notable titles about that conflict were even longer in coming - Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, made in 1957, or Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981).

The same was true of the Second World War, not least because several high-profile Hollywood stars signed up for active duty and the industry as a whole had an interest in falling into lockstep behind the national project. Cinema screens in the early 1940s were dominated by tales of derring-do and stiff-upper-lip courage under fire - films like Howard Hawks's Sergeant York, which told the story of a Tennessee farmer turned unlikely military hero from the First World War, or Yankee Doodle Dandy, an unabashedly patriotic musical starring James Cagney, of all people, or stirring, morale-boosting British imports like In Which We Serve or The Battle of Britain.

It wasn't until 1946 that audiences started seeing more bittersweet stories like William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, which looked at the traumatic effect of combat on a group of returning veterans.

That, though, was a conflict that most Americans - despite considerable initial scepticism - ended up supporting. In the case of Vietnam, where US public opinion went in the opposite direction, from support to doubt, Hollywood was extraordinarily cautious about saying anything too directly critical while the war was still on. M*A*S*H caused a furore with the conservative heartland, as did Jane Fonda's decision, at the height of her Oscar-winning fame, to travel to Hanoi.

In a singularly poisonous political atmosphere, nobody dared make a film chronicling America's failure in South-east Asia - with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola and friends, who seriously considered trying to shoot an early draft of Apocalypse Now in the midst of the real-life fighting in 1972. (They concluded that the risks were just too great.) So it wasn't until the late 1970s, after the US withdrawal, that we saw the release of films like The Deerhunter, Coming Home and, later, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. By the time of their release, American revisionism of the conflict was in full swing, and soon gave fruit to movies like the Rambo series, in which the Vietnam war was essentially refought and won. The 2004 presidential campaign, in which John Kerry's war record was questioned and distorted, proved that the issue remains incendiary in American political life.

Fast-forward to the current conflict in Iraq, and no such revisionism is in sight. Unlike any previous war, there simply hasn't been a propaganda-style movie to chivvy on the home-front audience (unless you count Disney's Hidalgo, released in 2004, which purports to be the true story of a champion American horse rider who tore up the Arabian desert to win a famous race a century ago - a story that turned out not to be true at all).

Diehard Bush supporters (a dwindling band, these past couple of years) would no doubt argue - as they have argued for the past five years - that Hollywood is simply an unpatriotic hotbed of liberal political correctness unable to set any political issue in its proper context. One prominent veteran, Dennis Griffee, of the Iraq War Veterans Organization, has refused to have anything to do with In The Valley Of Elah because it stars Susan Sarandon, one of Hollywood's most outspoken anti-war voices.

That argument, though, ignores Hollywood's history of happily playing any side of the political fence as long as it fulfils the primal need of the entertainment industry, which is to make money.

That, in the end, will be the acid test of the new crop of movies. If they are hits, we will see more of them.

If they are not, Hollywood will doubtless change the subject very quickly indeed. To Paris Hilton. Or something.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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